Contemporary Indian history and fiction mesh with western literature and imaginative architecture to bring nonsensical meaning to Somewhere.
These are mad-hatter houses, filled with swirling sounds of sitars and swarmandals. Giant teacups furnish rooms of pink paisley wallpaper. This is the world of Somewhere, an exploration game under development for PCs by Studio Oleomingus, an independent game studio that works on experimental video game projects as an open collaborative.
Played in first-person mode, Somewhere weaves unexplainable nonsense into an irresistible adventure.
The complex, quizzical tapestry can be traced to the richly varied Indian culture of its creator.
As far as commonly united republics go, India is about as varied as they come. Here is a nation with half a million villages, whose one billion citizens speak several hundred different languages, and which harbors an excessive number of distinct schools of philosophy. A game or any creative endeavor that tries to find a pattern in that complexity has its work cut out for it.
The structure of the game is equally quizzical. We often think of games as a series of rules that create problems to solve, but the idea for Somewhere is to use rules to bend reality into the shape of a caterpillar rolling end over end. Its houses are built in such a way that they intentionally fall down.
Set in a colonial India where everyone you meet is excessively chatty and fond of anecdotes, the game is narrative driven, best thought of as a compilation of short stories nested inside a loop-the-loop universe where fictions nonchalantly bleed into other fictions.
You could be leafing through a butterfly journal when you suddenly find yourself metamorphosed into the British anthropologist who wrote it, for instance.
Another time, you may find yourself buttonholed by a rather long-winded accomplice who is telling you a story about a white-bearded old barber who disappears in the mountains and has mystical experiences.
Perhaps the narration fades out and you make a quantum transition into the sarong of the barber, or perhaps it doesn’t.
As you’d expect from a game that places such huge emphasis on the craft of storytelling, Somewhere has quite the bibliography of influences.
Dhruv Jani, the game’s author and designer, is nothing if not well-read. He is inspired not only by colonial authors like Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster but also the evocative imagination of Italo Calvino.
In a Borgesian sleight of hand, the game opens with reference to a rare and magical volume of writing that could possibly, but probably doesn’t, exist in real-life. Elsewhere, Somewhere takes cues from contemporary Indian fiction.
“More than magical or mystical,” says Jani, “it is trying to grapple with the complexity of the secular construction — of one part of India trying to understand another part of India.”
Such cultural cognitive dissonance has given Indian readers and writers a taste for nonsense, a writing style the country inherited from the folk songs and children’s stories of its former British occupants.
In books such as “HaJaBaRaLa,” by Sukumar Ray, it is perfectly normal to encounter “centipedes who grow to become giraffes, or, you know, people who start to float and then disintegrate, or crows who like to do math,” says Jani.
He looks to the singsong of nonsense to give Somewhere’s narrative arc a playful whirling path, specifically “the way various stories combine and break apart, how you end up back at the beginning,” he explains.
But don’t discount Somewhere as typical video game story gobbledygook. As Jani has hinted at, there is a powerful social comment underlying all its knotted-up yarns.
Jani explains that, after independence, many Indians began to understand India as “a singular country, as one whole,” he says. “What is now called the Nationalist movement.” This, he says, was not for the best.
He is convinced that “in the fervor of setting out the constitution and setting up a new democracy, [Indians] started eroding regional cultures — discarding regional languages and regional customs — that would not fit inside a democratic parameter.”
He sees the idea of one united India as an illusion that’s distorting the country’s sense of identity.
“We’re trying to break the idea into smaller fragments,” he says. From his perspective, the nonsense of Somewhere is actually quite sensical.